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James D. G. Dunn: Friend or Foe?

James D. G. Dunn: Friend or Foe? July 27, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 3.38.55 PMI was once banned from a “Reformed” Facebook group for arguing that N. T. Wright is, indeed, an orthodox Christian. Feel free to judge me for debating theology in a Facebook group. I deserve it.

Though I disagree with Wright (in some respects) on the issue of justification, for example, I still argued that he is not a heretic. I quibble with some nuances, but he openly and clearly affirms what I find to be important aspects of justification and atonement—salvation by faith alone and penal substitution. I’ve read enough of Wright’s work to believe that I’ll see him on the new heavens and new earth.

Someone who gets a little more grief than Wright in conservative evangelical circles is James D. G. Dunn, one of the forefathers of the so-called “New Perspective on Paul” that Wright is also identified with. In the theological circles I was reared in, Wright was problematic but not necessarily a heretic, whereas Dunn was definitely a heretic.

I, for one, try to avoid the word “heretic” as much as possible. In fact, I think we need to recover the biblical and historical nuances of heresy, apostasy, false teaching, “treat him like an unbeliever,” and the like. That said, I came across an interview with Dunn from a few years ago that I found super helpful, particularly the part in which he explains the three most frustrating accusations against him, and what he actually believes about them.

I’m not making a case here one way or another for Dunn’s theology, but I do think it’s a good exercise in attempting to understand those with whom you disagree, and being willing to listen/read rather than speak ignorantly about others’ theology. You can read the whole interview here, but below are the three accusations he highlighted. He explains them more fully in the actual interview.

What are the 3 main misrepresentations or objections to your work among evangelical Christians, and what are your responses to those misrepresentations or objections?

James D. G. Dunn: (1) That I deny or diminish the divinity/deity of Christ in questioning the usual concept of his pre-existence; (2) that in the ‘new perspective on Paul’ I deny Paul’s/the Reformation’s basic teaching on justification by faith’; (3) that I diminish or deny the authority of scripture.

What’s the saddest, to me, is that almost every person I’ve ever heard bash Dunn has never actually read his work. Imagine, for a moment, that you do indeed affirm the Trinity, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture. My guess is that you do. Now imagine that you’ve been accused of denying all of them, mostly by people who’ve only deemed you a heretic because of secondhand information about you from someone else.

It’s judicious for us to take Dunn (and others we disagree with) at his word, and then go from there. Instead of saying, “He’s a heretic who denies the Trinity,” how about believing him when he confesses it, and then interacting with and critiquing his actual arguments on the subject? This is the loving thing do for any Christian who (rightly) claims to care about truth. I know this type of engagement is countercultural in our hot take-driven world, but it seems more wise to me to read widely, think thoroughly, denounce carefully, and love readily.

Stay in touch! Email me at ChurchGrammar@gmail.com.


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